Does handwriting have a place in today's tech-driven classrooms?

Educators may be incorporating more and more technology into their lessons, but many believe that teaching children to write by hand is still a necessary part of teaching them how to use language and express ideas coherently.

Educators say basic writing and spelling skills still necessary for success in school and life

A child practices cursive writing skills. Writing by hand may seem obsolete to some, but many educators believe it is an important part of learning to formulate and express ideas coherently. (iStock)

The practice of students endlessly copying letters and sentences from a chalkboard is a thing of the past. Teaching perfect strokes and proper curves in cursive writing is no longer at the top of a teacher's lesson plan.

With the advent of new technologies like tablets and smartphones, writing by hand has become something of a nostalgic skill.

However, while today's educators are incorporating more and more technology into their teaching, many believe basic handwriting skills are still necessary for students to be successful — both in school and in life.

Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, says it's important to help children acquire the skill of writing by hand almost as they would a second language.

"I think it is wise to continue teaching handwriting," Berninger said. "We need to continue to help kids be 'bilingual' by hand."

The old way

In the past, the ability to accurately form all the upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet and connect them together to make words was seen as a highly valued skill that was the foundation of a child's education.

Marianne McTavish, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia, recalls her early days as a teacher and the writing exercises she went through with her students.

Advice for parents

Marianne McTavish (Unversity of British Columbia)

Teaching children to be proficient in both technology and basic skills like writing by hand is a balancing act that is as much a task for parents as for teachers. Marianne McTavish, a UBC professor of language and literacy education, suggests several ways that parents can help kids integrate these skills.

  • Have frequent conversations with teachers to determine what technology children are being exposed to at school and how it is being used for their education.
  • Check school planners or homework and determine whether or not it would be beneficial to incorporate technology into some of the assigned tasks.
  • Support children in acquiring culturally specific handwriting skills — such as the certain script or orthography associated with some languages that requires precise, careful formation of letters.
  • Provide children with other means to develop fine motor skills, such as puzzles, cutting, playing with shapes, threading beads or moulding clay.

"We spent hours a week teaching young students how to correctly form letters, doing stroke work, proper formation and a lot of printing practice," she said. "It was very much something that was assessed and valued."

There is still a clear emphasis on maintaining those building blocks within the education system.

Berninger and her colleagues conducted a study that looked at the ability of students to complete various writing tasks — both on a computer and by hand.

The study, published in 2009, found that when writing with a pen and paper, participants wrote longer essays and more complete sentences and had a faster word production rate.

In a more recent study, Berninger looked at what role spelling plays in a student's writing skills and found that how well children spell is tied to how well they can write.

"Spelling activates some of the thinking parts of the brain in the frontal lobes." Berninger said. "We think that it is a cognitive portal, because it helps us access our vocabulary, word meaning and concepts  … It is allowing your written language to connect with ideas."

Spelling helps students translate ideas into words in their mind first and then to transcribe "those word representations in the mind into written symbols in the external environment (on paper or keyboard and monitor)," the study said.

Seeing the words in the "mind's eye" helps children to not only turn their ideas into words, says Berninger, but also to spot spelling mistakes when they write the words down and to correct them over time.

"In our computer age, some people believe that we don't have to teach spelling because we have spell checks," she said. "But until a child has a functional spelling ability of about a fifth grade level, they won't have the knowledge to choose the correct spelling among the options given by the machine."

The new way

While fundamental writing and spelling skills are still being taught, educational institutions and teachers are not ignoring the increasing presence of technology in the lives of the children they are teaching today.

Jay Chilibecki, 12, right, and Scout Sackley, 11, play a game at a computer camp in Calgary. Computers and other devices are a common part of many North American classrooms today. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Dubbed the digital generation, most children growing up in the Western world today own cellphones at a young age and have increasingly advanced computer skills.

According to the marketing research company Comscore, 52.5 per cent of 13- to 17-year-olds in Canada own a smartphone compared to 37.1 per cent of adults age 35 or older. Ninety-one per cent of those teenagers use their smartphone to send text messages, compared to 82 per cent of adults. Among teens, 64 per cent use the device to play a game, compared to just 48 per cent of adults, and 25 per cent watch videos, versus 10 per cent of adults.

Educators and teaching curricula are taking this clear presence of technology in the lives of young people into account.

McTavish tells her student teachers at UBC to pay attention to the presence of technology but to first and foremost look at the social and cultural makeup of a classroom.

'I instruct them to look really carefully at the kind of apps or programs that they're purchasing to determine what is pedagogically sound.'— Marianne McTavish, University of British Columbia

"There are kids that are going to be in school who might not have access to technology, their parents might not have iPhones or can't afford broadband internet," she said.

Like other educators, McTavish is trying to outfit the teachers of the future with the ability to educate students who are living in a digital world but at the same time to draw a line in terms of how much technology is allowed to penetrate the classroom.

"I instruct them to look really carefully at the kind of apps or programs that they're purchasing to determine what is pedagogically sound to give to their students," said McTavish.

McTavish is an advocate for technology in the classroom but still stresses that the fundamentals be taught in order that the technology is used effectively.

"I saw a student using an app where they were forming an 'm,' and the app asked them to do the first stick and then the second stick and then do a 'v' in the middle. To me, that is not pedagogically sound at all," she said.

Technology only a tool

Jason Nolan, a professor of early childhood studies at Ryerson University, has a similar approach to the use of technology in education.

'Present tools are no better than those of the past if they are not put to good use.'— Jason Nolan, Ryerson University

An avid user of technology and new devices, Nolan believes that just because children are using these technologies doesn't mean that their use in the classroom will yield staggering advancements in education.

"Present tools are no better than those of the past if they are not put to good use," said Nolan.

"Teaching children to express themselves, challenge themselves and exceed the expectations they learn to set for themselves should be our goals as parents and educators."

McTavish says that future teachers should take into account the needs of their specific pupils while still adapting their teaching style to the changing climate of the technological world.

The bottom line, says McTavish, is not whether or not students are using technology but whether or not technology is helping them better understand what they are learning.